With the recent publication of the first volume of Beckett’s letters I started to recall the last time I met Beckett in Paris in 1988.
We first met in April, 1985. It had been three years since our meeting at the café in the Hotel PLM. At noon. Noon being the time he had suggested. The suggested hour.
At the time, there was the usual feeling one gets upon meeting one’s hero. Of sorts. Heroes coming in all sorts of sizes. Genres. Modes of discourse.
Our first meeting was all that I hadn’t expected it to be: chatty, informal, with an air of melodious, yet melancholy, music to it.
Yet, in its own way, it was sacrosanct. And so I looked forward to our next meeting, our last meeting. At the café of his choice, the PLM; at the time of his choice, noon.
I had primed myself by seeing “En Attendant Godot” several nights earlier in case one needed priming for such a meeting since my anxieties were much less pronounced than they were three years earlier.
By now we had corresponded, almost called each other by first names, knew where each other lived. He had even consented to reading some blather I had written even though he couldn’t read much by then. Blather is all it was. Can’t remember what I had sent him.
I was early. Always early. One waits for Beckett, if one respects time. If one respects Beckett. It is also a kindness afforded to greatness. My time seemed expendable.
I started to smooth my hair, tapped my fingers on the marble table, would have smoked had I allowed myself to do it.
In between still another hair stroke, still another tapping finger, I saw him walk in and begin to look around. Gone were the grey greatcoat and the blue sweater now replaced with a knee-length, navy blue coat and an orange stocking cap. Tennies.
I walked across the room and tapped his shoulder.
“Mr. Axelrod,” he said as he turned.
Beckett had chosen a booth, in a corner of the café, away from the window, beneath a coat rack. He removed a small, yellow cigar box and placed it on the table. Weathered hands, bent from the fabric of so many rigid pens.
What I noticed this time that I hadn’t noticed three years earlier were the lines in his face. The creases, deep, curvilinear, like furrows that had swallowed certain secrets and kept them irretrievably harbored.
“The weather’s been so bad,” I said, “How do you manage? Morocco?”
A place he said he visited, at times, when Paris got too cold.
“My cottage,” he said, some miles outside Paris. In what direction he didn’t say. A reclusive habitat, no doubt. Doubt needed for reclusion.
We ordered coffees: a café noir for him, a café crème for me.
He seemed much thinner to me. Not a sickly thin, but an aged one, one that seemed to brook the onset of deliquescence. Deathlike, it seemed to me. I quickly discounted the idea.
“How’s the writing going?” I asked. A legitimate question of one writer to another regardless of the legitimate disparity in our talents.
Not well, he said, as he fiddled with his cigars.
“Writer’s block,” I said as a jest to me, to him, but he answered that it had never lasted so long.
Then he looked at me with a smile that masqueraded nothing. A realization that the Muse was finally eluding him and he said, all things come to an end. And I realized that anything I said or did after that comment would never alter the fabric of that day, nor my life, nor his, nor any other life that had been or is or will be touched by his prose, by the supple salience of his prose which breathes across the page.
I had often thought of myself as fairly facile in conversation. Able to pick up and move in any direction. But I suddenly found myself unable to think of anything to say that would liquidate the vacuum of the moment. Fortunately, the coffees came. A caffeinated respite.
I remembered reading, that morning, on the Metro, an article in the now defunct Paris magazine, Passion, titled “Les l00 Poids Lourds Des Lettres” with a picture of a certain Regine Deforges, a writer unknown to me, on the cover. The blurb beneath the title read ““Un hit-parade des l00 personnes-editeurs, écrivains, et...poètes-qui constituent le Tout-Paris des lettres.”
The article certainly piqued my interest since I wondered in what category they had ensconced Beckett since such natives as Michel Butor and Maurice Blanchot and Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute were included as were exiles such as Milan Kundera.
But though I looked and looked and looked again, Beckett was missing. Some poseurs were there, yes; some Beckett, was not.